Identifying the lone shooter: a future threat | Sunday Observer

Identifying the lone shooter: a future threat

It is true that we are enjoying the bliss of peace and prosperity, and no one wants to talk about bullets and death. Yet a good number of our youth are subjecting themselves to various forms of undue stress…..

Print and electronic media headlines throughout the past five years have centered on incidents involving the violent episodes of shooting, by a lone deranged gunman. So far, all the active shooters have been young men, the most number of killing sprees originating in America. These violent men were all aged between 17-30 years. Many have not been able to grasp this sudden outburst of rage leading to mass murder. The background of each shooter remains complex. The crime scenes are also complex; especially from a law enforcer’s view point- the challenge being that they have to respond only after the shooter begins his killing spree.

The FBI has classified an active shooter as ‘an individual engaged in killing people in a confined or populated area’. The first half of this profile clearly shows that the shooter always operates alone. He does not plan his mission with anyone, as this person already suffers from trust issues. He is willing to take the full credit and risk for his diabolic crime. Secondly, his selection of ‘soft targets’ is always in a place where there are more than a dozen people. The shooter wants a public display. Often such soft targets are schools, mega malls, sports and music events, public parks, cinemas where people relax and unwind. These places have limited security and often the security officer is not legally empowered to use a firearm and shoot back. The only response to such a threat is the rapid action of Police within minutes to the scene of confrontation. The shooter always uses a semi or fully automatic weapon.

In the Sri Lankan context, we have not yet witnessed such a shootout- by a young lone gunman. Yet we cannot undermine the impending threat of such actions in the future. It is true that we are enjoying the bliss of peace and prosperity, and no one wants to talk about bullets and death. Yet a good number of our youth are subjecting themselves to various forms of undue stress- some self imposed and some from outside pressure. The self imposed stress comes from failed romantic relationships (now the former lover is hated and looked upon as prey), failed career aspirations, sudden loss of assets (losing an estate to a legal case),failure to enter a prestigious foreign university, dependence on alcohol and narcotic substances, issues relating to unlawful sexual relationships (a young married person cheating on spouse.) Others remain bullied even as young adults and have anti-social personalities and hatred. All these traits remain dormant. A vital element here (thankfully to our existing laws and cultural-religious bindings) is that you can’t purchase a firearm like in the US and some other European countries. This I believe is the prime deterrent thus far, where we have not seen such a fatal outburst. Yet Police crime records will show a steady increase in the manifestation of violent crime (not in data numbers, but the act of killing).

Decades ago a person would be stabbed to death, but we are seeing the use of automatic assault rifles today. There have been many cases of jilted lovers throwing acid to disfigure the other person, or giving ‘contracts’ to intimidate or kill. Another platform of expressing hate is via Facebook and other social media, including email that has degrading content.

Mindset of the shooter

The active shooter has a complex set of behaviour which is hard to understand. Somehow, they never arouse the suspicion of their family members, university batch mates, co-workers or close friends. Many of the shooters in the US have been gainfully employed. Some played sports. Others had relaxing hobbies such as fishing and painting.

The active shooter does not fit into the general pattern of a mass murderer or Serial killer. A serial killer commits a prolonged crime spree, yet operates on a low profile, hunting his victims one at a time, often based on sexual lust. In contrast the active shooter makes a ‘one time encounter’ in a compressed time frame. He does not shoot to reign over territory as in a gang related shootout. The serial killer hides the corpse but the active shooter wants fame for his crime- Seeking media exposure, as he often live inside a shell, hiding some addiction or nurturing a violent fantasy.

Another interesting point is that the active shooter does not want to hide or escape. He comes prepared for a shootout with the Police or any one responding to him. He wants publicity. Often the shooter will post a brief homemade video on YouTube or Face book, minutes before the attack (but will not disclose the chosen target) foolishly trying to justify his actions.


Psychologically the serial killer is a person who has undergone physical/ emotional abuse over a long time period. He then chooses to vent his revenge on his single victims from time to time, craftily evading arrest. In contrast the young active shooter is a victim of bullying. He is emotionally displaced by one incident that may trigger the need for mass revenge (being bullied at university or sports practice).Some active shooters are mildly similar in their rationale and thinking to an Ideological killer. The ideological murderer is a person who is strongly infused with extreme patterns of ethnic-political or religious orthodoxy.

He attributes his deviant actions to religious/political teachings which he has misinterpreted. The Oklahoma City bombing is a prime example of this kind of mindset, where 168 lives were lost within a few seconds. Being in the centre of the crime scene and putting his name in the news is the thought process of the lone shooter.

Restorative response

Given the sudden outburst of this kind of carnage, the Police face a very difficult challenge in responding to an active shooter. Often the people being shot at may not have access to a phone. Even if they carried a mobile phone they would not be in a safe position to dial. The shooter takes a defiant and glorified stance as his innocent victims are often pleading for their lives. He will not negotiate with Police. He comes ready to shoot and be shot at. Recorded incidents clearly show that to this date no policeman has been killed by an active shooter (Virginia Tech shooting 2007 and Parliament Hill shooting Ottawa 2014).

Interestingly 40% of such lone gunmen were shot and killed by Police and 46% shot themselves in an act of public suicide (USA). As I said before in the Sri Lankan context, we have not yet witnessed such a shootout- by a lone young gunman. It could unfold within the next few years. Over the past decade the Police have upgraded their response and tactical capabilities to mitigate such threats. Emphasis must be placed on having a system of recording deviant and criminal behaviour – from schools to campus. Such youth must be monitored, without embarrassment to their families.

Parents must also act mature- without blaming their child’s actions on superstition or other reasons. Parents must seek help. These young people need clinical counseling and exposure in a holistic environment. Religious and civil organizations must also contribute to programmes aimed at counseling and stress relief. Sports and music are good therapy to induce teamwork and break the anti- social mindset of these frustrated youth, who may seek revenge. A society where people can pursue a joyful life would be a good countermeasure to the future threat of the active shooter in sunny paradise.